A serendipitous chain of events – frustration after reviewing for an AP physics final leads me to begin reading a new book by the co-founder of Summit charter schools. Is there a path out of the current education morass?!??

Friday the 13th, December 2019 – Fall semester is coming rapidly to a close and everyone, myself included, is busily reviewing/helping review for final exams.

Last night I was working with one of my favorite students who is taking AP physics.  I only meet with this student once a week for a session of up to two hours, but, as we started going over the review packet for the final, I was chagrined, once again, to see that most of the material covered early in the semester had been almost completely forgotten.  I’ve been tutoring AP physics for the last 8 years now, and this year’s review packet also contained some ambiguous questions which did not help matters.

I encounter this situation every year, but this student in particular is excellent, so it bothered me even more than usual this time.

Readers of this blog know quite well that I have not been a fan of the AP system.  AP physics in particular tends to cover too much material far too quickly.  Nationally in 2019 the AP Physics 1 exam had the lowest average score of any AP test (2.51 on a scale of 5) with a pass rate of only 45.4%.  This is despite the redesign of the exam in 2015 when the College Board reacted to poor scores by cutting back the material covered PLUS the even more amazing fact that students need only around 41% correct answers to get a passing grade of 3!

In the rush to cover the topics even on the newer pared-down exam, it is crystal clear to me that insufficient practice problems are given to students before the class needs to move on to the next topic in the frantic rush to “cover the material.”

I believe that the sacred trust of high school teachers is to inspire interest and enthusiasm in the subject taught, not overwhelm students with so many details that they end up feeling stupid and frustrated.

Physics is a hard topic to begin with, but should be the most fun and enlightening class a student takes in high school.  Very few students are fortunate enough to have this experience in high school (neither did I; college physics saved me fortunately).

When a teacher is forced to teach to the requirements of the AP exam (the main purpose of which is to spread out the curve to help college admissions offices sort through applicants), the pace of the curriculum is not conducive to generating a love for the subject; in fact, it sadly does the exact opposite!!

I have been working with the student above for several years and was really looking forward to studying physics with them this year (unfortunately due to my public writings I have to use gender neutral references).  It was crushing to see that “the system” was crashing down on things yet again.

Starting today off in a foul mood because of the above, I decided to go to lunch at Filoli, one of my favorite places around the holidays.  After eating, I walked around the now dormant rose garden and took a seat under a large persimmon tree to read.

I was scrolling through my WordPress blog list, perusing a few articles from Diane Ravitch’s education blog, when I ran across a post from Bill Gates, reviewing a new book by the co-founder and CEO of Summit charter schools, Diane Tavenner.  The title of the book is “Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.”  Summit schools started out right here in the Bay Area originally sharing space with Sequoia High School in Redwood City.

Anyone who knows the history of Dr. Ravitch and Mr. Gates might be surprised that I look at both blogs.  Dr. Ravitch leads public school advocates and is vehemently opposed to privatization/charter schools.  Mr. Gates has been one of the largest funders and supporters of the public school “reform” movement.  The vitriol flung back and forth between these two camps can be overwhelming at times.

As to reading both blogs, I admit that I am a dinosaur – one of the few remaining Americans who believes in investigating the many sides of the story instead of just tuning to MSNBC or Fox News all day long to reinforce my prejudices.

I downloaded a free Kindle sample of Ms. Tavenner’s book and read it engrossed while sitting in Filoli’s rose garden.  The story in the book’s Prologue about a student named Isabella who succeeded at Summit despite amazing odds against her was riveting.  I quickly finished the Prologue, chapter 1, and the first part of chapter 2 when I reached the end of my freebie.  I then paid for the rest of the book which I hope to finish over the winter break, and will report back more later.

Ms. Tavenner focuses a lot in the free Kindle excerpt on disadvantaged students struggling to make it in our society (including herself at a younger age), and near the end of the first chapter mentions their “Summit Learning” software program “in which other schools could have access to the resources, curriculum, and tools we use, for free.”  She mentions Summit’s method of personalizing education for each student using technology, and how every student is paired with teacher and student mentors to help them succeed.  In contrast to the rushed AP system, learning is self-paced, but “100 percent of of our graduates are eligible for a four-year college, and 98% are accepted.  Summit grads finish college at double the national average, and the rate is much higher for minority students.”

Sounds very good, and I look forward to reading the rest!

However, I should also note that Summit Learning and the personalized learning approach in general has generated its fair share of controversy as noted in these articles:

So is Ms. Tavenner’s new book going to turn out to be a marketing tool for Summit Learning?  I don’t know yet.

I have used the ALEKS software with some of my math students for supplemental self-paced instruction.  My personal experience casts doubt about putting a student alone in front of a computer.  Unless an adult is sitting with the student while they work through the program, it tends not to get used, and the computers are often used instead as a tool to access other distractions.  HOWEVER, with close adult supervision, I believe it can be a valuable additional tool in a teacher’s quiver of arrows.  The fourth article “2011 Video…” in the list above makes one wonder, however, if technology will in fact be used that way.

Despite these reservations, I look forward to reading the rest of “Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.”

Sadly, what I currently see in our public schools does not bring me joy either…

On that cheerful note – Happy Holidays!!

Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

3 thoughts on “Prepared?”

  1. Hi David
    I live around the corner from you and would like to chat with you about this very subject. Let me know if that would be possible.
    Doug Hammed


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